The diversity of Native American religions could fill whole libraries with descriptions of belief, tales of lore, definitions, explanations, and insights into spiritual practices and ceremonies. To the outside world, however, far too much of the truth remains generalized and horribly steeped in stereotypes and misconceptions.
Until around the middle of the 20th century, what most non-natives knew about their religions was tainted by rather racist TV shows, movies, and from remnants of the same old bigotry that led to the conversion attempts throughout history.
As more information about Native American religion gets shared with people all across the country and around the world, however, those misconceptions begin to break apart. Making assumptions about how things are makes no sense. Reading one article about a sundance or sweat lodge fails to share every nuance of these practices across tribes and throughout various geographical locations.
Of course, the modern world affects the practice of people's spirituality, the ceremonies they still perform, and the day-to-day activities that permeate their lives as much as saying Grace before dinner may for a Christian family. In fact, many Native Americans have converted to other faiths over the generations, many incorporate traditional ceremonies and practices into modern religion.
Now more than ever before in the modern age, Native American people are reinvigorating beliefs that have permeated their diverse cultures for centuries.[i]
Efforts to pass down the old ways to new generations are constantly underway. This is primarily done through the oral tradition and by inviting tribal members to participate in various ceremonies and gatherings.
There is no one “holy book” or set of particular laws that all tribes follow or even for the individuals. Unlike the most popular faith systems around the globe, Native beliefs were not intrinsically tied to politics of economies either.
Before exploring any of the common threads found in many Native American religions, it is important to understand that there are hundreds of different tribes across the country who have their own cultures and spiritualties. While it is impossible to describe all of them here, the knowledge of the vast variety can help people comprehend the complexity and uniqueness of them all.
No Division Between the Spiritual and Real World
Before delving into more specific information about what native peoples believed, it makes sense to explain that the concept of religion as an organized thing is not really a part of most traditions. Religion describes a division between the supernatural, which is ruled by one or multiple deities.
Native American spirituality does not separate the two concepts in any real way. The spiritual or supernatural world is the same thing as the real world. Every supposed division is completely permeable and people can access everything spiritual just as easily as they can wade in a river or feel the sun on their skin.
There also exists a general sense of connection and oneness among a particular tribe of Native American people. The Lakota term “mitakuye oyasin” means that all are related or all beings are relations of each other.[ii] This explains the belief that spirit exists in everything or that everything is connected ins some ways. This does not necessarily encompass an objectified spiritual connection because the concept behind the phrase also pushes for respect for the individual.
Misunderstandings about the purpose behind the word, especially in non-native and non-Lakota communities, carry quite a bit of conflict. Still, the idea that all people and things are part of a whole and should respect and honor each other is not damaging in any way.
No concepts of unattainability or inaccessibility seem to exist for many Native American belief systems. Everything exists in relation to everything else. This concept leads to the belief that tribal people are “one with nature” or similar ideas. Although phrases like that are often used in New Age philosophies, it does, at its core, also pertain to this idea of the spiritual existing firmly in the realm of tangible reality.
The Diversity of Native American Religion
Today, there are 573 recognized Native American tribes according to both federal and state governments in the United States.[iii] While, of course, they do not now exist as completely separate and divided groups, and the people who belong to those tribes live anywhere they want, they still do carry some rather distinct religious beliefs and practices through the generations.
Are they all different? No. Throughout history, many tribal communities interacted with each other, traded, shared cultural practices and even intermarried. This leads to assimilation or acculturation where both groups exchange ideas or beliefs in various ways. This happens in most cultures around the world that come into contact with another.
One homogenous Native American religion does not exist. The whole range has much more diversity than, for example, how people practice Christianity in Rome versus how they do in Haiti or the American Bible Belt. Most native spiritualties are polytheistic, which means they have more than one deity, although there are some that lean toward monotheism with one major god or goddess.
It is interesting to note that the vast majority of things written about Native American religions in the past has been from non-native points of view.[iv] The diversity in descriptions ranges from true efforts to share an accurate view of how things were and are, to collections of ludicrous assumptions and romanticized visions of what they think—or want to think—Native American spirituality is all about.
Native American Spirituality Defined
Instead of calling their beliefs and practices a set religion, most refer to it as a system of spirituality that permeates every aspect of their lives. Religion is a set doctrine of supernatural beliefs, the ceremonies, and activities associated with it, and includes things like concepts of deities, spirits or ghosts, what happens to a person after death, and certain special occasions throughout a person's life.
Native American spirituality includes similar ideas, but integrates them more into everyday living rather than reserving them for special occasions. Of course, there are ceremonies for births, deaths, marriages, harvests, and other special times, but daily life was just as filled with beliefs as “holidays” would be.
Some Common Threads Throughout
When anyone speaks of religion specifically, they usually look for the ceremonies and beliefs that surround some of the most pivotal points in a person's life. These include birth, marriage, and death. Spiritual beliefs also pertain to things going on in the natural world around the people. In hunter-gatherer or agricultural communities, which traditional Native tribes were, also had a lot to do with planting, harvesting, and hunting or raising animals.
Beliefs About Death
In general, the Native American concept of death matched the same path as many other religions around the world.[v] They believe in a spirit that lives on after physical death stopped the body. It will journey on to another realm or spirit world where it would live another type of life much as it did when it was within a human body here on Earth.
The concept of journeying on to another world makes sense when you consider the idea that many tribes spent a lot of time traveling in the early days. They would see a journey as a normal progression of life. In some cases, however, the spirit would get stuck on Earth or not make it to the spirit realm.
Funeral rites and ceremonies existed to facilitate the spirit's progression to its next life. This, again, is not that much different from other religions around the world. For example, ancient Egyptians mummified their pharaohs and buried them with worldly possessions so they could “live” comfortably after death. Things like “Last Rites” and prayers at a funeral provide the same services in Catholicism.
Planting or Harvesting
For tribes who engaged in agriculture, especially those in the South and Eastern portion of the United States, celebrations like the Green Corn Festivals mattered a lot. These particular ceremonies had to do with picking corn at the end of the growing season and waiting until it was ready to be used as food. These ceremonies were done by the Cherokee, Iroquois, Creek, and other Native American nations. They included ritual cleansings, dancing, feasts, various types of ceremonies, and practices both serene and a lot of fun. Everything from council meetings to baby naming ceremonies to ball games and sports occurred at these times.
It makes sense that any early agricultural civilization would celebrate the new abundance of food. It has always been a time to come together as a community or with nearby groups and practice spirituality.
The Concept of a Great Spirit or God
As mentioned above, some people believe in many different deities controlling things like weather, the underworld, or even something as specific as a particular mountain. The idea of a singular great spirit emerges in many different tribes, however. The Lakota, or Sioux, and Dakota tribes call this Wakan-Tanka.[vi] The concept itself is as diverse as other culture's concepts of what a god or goddess is.
Wakan-Tanka loosely means “great (or sarcred) mystery” and encompasses a belief in spirits that interact with the world in various ways. It is often considered a great force that exists in every person, animal, plant, and every objects in existence. It is similar to animism practiced in various pagan religions around the world. Different groups consider it the creator of all things, but it ultimately defies explanation simply because of what it is: a mystery.
All older cultures around the globe have their own stories about creation, how their people came to exist, cosmology and the world and stars, the afterlife, and how spiritual power exists or is used within their culture. All of these things exist across Native American spirituality forms, too.
Words and Ceremonies You Have Heard Of
When non-natives set out to learn all they can about Native American religions, or when tribal people want to learn about the beliefs of other nations, they usually end up with the type of general overview. Also, throughout their reading and research, some particular terms come up again and again.
One is Waken-Tanka, which is described above as the great or sacred mystery that may encompass the idea of a creator god, spirits, and the existence of an unknowable force that exists in everything. Other common words and ceremonial types are included below. Many people have heard these terms from reading or movies, but may not truly understand what they are.
The Sun Dance
Many Native religions view the sun as a great power in their spiritual world. The Sun Dance practiced by many cultures is a way to honor the sun. It also allows warriors to experience awe-inspiring spiritual visions.[vii]
This ritualistic dance involves erecting a large, painted pole at the center of the dance place, fasting for the duration, painting or otherwise decorating their bodies, performing a vigorous, circular dance, and, occasionally, cutting or piercing their own skin with blades and hooks. This last part is only practiced by some of the tribes that perform this ceremony.
European settlers outlawed the Sun Dance as part of their plan to wipe out Native American culture and religion. It took until 1970 in the United States for the laws against it to be taken off the books. This occurred when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. Today, they are commonly performed at special ceremonies and public events to help non-natives learn about the unique cultural heritage.
The Ghost Dance
Wovoka, a Paiute prophet, envision the Ghost Dance movement as a way to renew positive things to Native American tribes across the country.[viii] This occurred in the latter part of the 1800s when westward expansion had forced many tribal people out of their homes, disease had spread and killed many thousands of natives, and cultures and religions were being destroyed in horrible ways.
The Ghost Dance was a way to fight back against the European settlers in a very spiritual way. In a way, it was a protest or movement against expansion. The general belief, born of Wovoka's spirit quest or vision, was that the dance would return ancestor's spirits from the dead, bring back the massive tribes of buffalo, and stop the white settlers from destroying the people or taking up the rest of the land.
Besides circle dancing at night and other spiritual rituals, the vision included a call to work with white settlers peacefully, remain moral in all things, and do not drink alcohol or otherwise sully their bodies. Interestingly enough, the concept of a rebirth of deceased ancestors stemmed at least partially from Wovoka's Christian upbringing. [ix]
Many tribes adopted this ritual because they dearly wanted those things to happen. They believed in the vision of the originator until, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee destroyed that hope.
The concept of sweat lodges goes back through the generations to early days when Native people sought out a type of physical and spiritual cleansing and vision questing combined.
Sweat lodges, which are more appropriately called purification lodges[x], are about renewing yourself and forming a limitless bond with the spiritual world. Different tribes have various methods for achieving this goal, but it really all starts with a small wooden frame, blankets or hides covering it, and a source of heat. They are organized and orchestrated by spiritual leaders in the community who give specific instructions based on the individual's needs or goals.
Every sweat lodge ceremony includes offerings, prayers, various types of things like tobacco, cedar, and sweetgrass to burn. A fire is built outside the lodge and heats up rocks, which are then taken into the structure for the duration. Of course, water is poured on the rocks to release the fragrant and potentially mind-altering steam. They can be done individually or in a group.
Smoke and steam in various forms plays a frequent role in Native American ceremonies. Since it rises in the air, it symbolized a connection between the earth below and the sky above.[xi] Anyone who has seen an old “Cowboys and Indians” movie or cartoon has probably seen a depiction of native people smoking a peace pipe as a type of ceremony. Obviously, these are rather ridiculous and simplified examples of the spiritual reasons behind pipe ceremonies.
Tobacco is likewise commonly used in rituals and spiritual events. Many tribes use different types of pipes to pass around or smoke purposefully in the cardinal directions during these ceremonies. The practices are as diverse as the tribes who do them and the particular situation it is being done for. Pipe smoking is part of peace negotiations but also naming ceremonies and personal prayers. For multi-person ceremonies, the pipe is provided by a special Pipe Carrier[xii] who helps to orchestrate the prayer ritual.
Smudging is the act of burning certain herbs or incense so they produce a lot of smoke, and using that smoke to cleanse a person, object, or place.[xiii] It is done in many pagan religions to release negativity or bad spirits from a location. The Catholic and Episcopal churches use censers with smoking incense during mass for the same purposes. The Native Americans from various tribes use smudging in much the same way.
While the smoke itself is still symbolic of the transference and connection, the use of particular plants, which are imbued with the Wakan-Tanka or spiritual power in general, add another layer to the ceremonies. Common herbs used include cedar, sage, sweetgrass, lavender, and tobacco. They can be used singularly or in any specific combination deemed helpful for the particular circumstances.
The process of smudging includes burning these plants in some natural type of bowl and using a large feather or a hand to waft the smoke in all directions. The feather adds another layer of symbolism and meaning to the ritual. Birds, especially eagles, are revered as a connection from the sky to the ground much like the smoke is. In some cases, a smudge stick is fashioned first and used without a bowl or other container. These are just bundles of dried plants.
Many native cultures include the concept of vision quests in their religious or spiritual beliefs and practices. These quests exist to form or encourage a type of connection to a spirit or guide that can bestow truths or understanding on a particular person. Some of the prophets of Native American religious history, such as Wovoka who started the Ghost Dance tradition, experienced vision quests that led to great change among their own or multiple tribal peoples.
Individuals can also have vision quests as part of religious ceremonies. In some tribes, every young person would receive a certain amount of religious instruction and undergo a questing ceremony of one type of another. This was to give them guidance for their adult life. In other cultures, only men would do this, or certain people would have a vision quest while others did not. Also, the process was occasionally kept to spiritual leaders or shamans within the tribes.
The particular practices and purposes of vision quests may differ, but there are some general characteristics. For example, many of these experiences involve sweat lodges. They can happen during ceremonies involving fasting or dancing. Sometimes, they involve going off into the wilderness by yourself and staying there until a vision happens or for a certain number of days.
No matter what the actual process included, the visions received by the participants are often translated or figured out by a spiritual or religious advisor within the tribe. They look for certain types of symbolism or meaning behind the messages.
These are just some of the more common Native American ceremonies and religious practices that people have heard about over the years. They are often misconstrued due to popular media and the efforts of outsiders to turn them into something they are not.
Unfortunately, native cultures have either been held in disregard, actively fought against, or even romanticized for a very long time.
Increased understanding and acceptance can help fight against these issues going forward.
A Long-Term Attack on Native Spirituality
Changes to Native American religion did not begin the moment Europeans landed on the eastern shores of what would later be called the United States. The multiple tribes and nations that existed all across the country would affect each other through assimilation and even battle. Anywhere there is more than one cultural group, they will influence each other in some way.
Of course, there is no way to claim that Europeans did not have a very real and dire effect on native populations and their ways of life. Killing people and forcing them to move off their property has destroyed some of traditions, beliefs, and understandings to a large degree.
Spirituality as a Spatial Truth
While, from an outside perspective, forcing native people out of their ancestral homes and pushing them westward or onto reservations is a deplorable act, it might not be fully understood as an affront to their spirituality. Concepts of holy ground, sacred lands, or the ever-present “Indian graveyards” in ghost stories touch on the importance of place or space when it comes to Native American religious beliefs and practices.
Many commonly held beliefs rely on this sense of spatial truth. After all, if the sacred mystery exists in mountains, people, fish, and stones, the land itself is part of the peoples' spiritual existence.[xiv] Everything is alive and sentient to a degree. With this understanding, the idea of moving people off their patch of land becomes that much more destructive to their spirituality.
“Heathens” and Assumptions of Evil
It is an unfortunate truth that Christianity has wages a long-term war against all other religions, especially those considered pagan or heathenistic. Through assimilation, it has conquered or fundamentally changed many faith systems. In the Americas, it systematically set out to destroy Native American religions.
Why? Because the people did “strange” things that did not coincide with their way of doing things.
European influences destroyed languages, stamped out cultural identity, and stole the opportunity to pass down religious beliefs on a grand scale. These days, many do not know about the depth of this historical truth. Thankfully, very few actually support this type of effort.
As with any outside force attempting to destroy or change an inside truth, attacks on native spirituality resulted in some very real changes that still exist today. The above-mentioned ghost dance is one of these things. Now, more groups and organizations associated with various tribes attempt to hold onto or regain the lore, beliefs, and practices of their ancestors so they do not vanish with the sands of time.
Where Misconceptions Come From
To put it bluntly, the most common misconceptions about Native American religions come from ignorance and ingrained bigotry.
The European world that first invaded or infiltrated native land in the United States brought their own beliefs and ideas about things to the new world. It is a common truth throughout history that any new culture approaching an existing one will seek to change it. They do this through a complex system of force, integration, assimilation, and simply convincing people that their way is the right one.
People today have many misconceptions about Native American spirituality and life, too. You cannot blame the first colonists for making this happen anymore. Instead, things like popular media have introduced a lot of false information about tribal people and practices in general. These usually fall into one of two categories.
Native American Religion is Wrong
The idea of one belief being right and the other being wrong is ingrained in most religious teachings. It is also a common human behavior theme. If you like the Eagles football team, people who like the Giants are wrong. If you prefer Nike athletic shoes, fans of Adidas are likewise wrong. When this occurs in the confines of religion, however, things usually get a bit more volatile. Spirituality is, after all, a very personal and integral part of many people's lives.
It is one thing to personally believe that doing a Sun Dance, smudging ritual, or going on a vision quest are not real ways to practice the “one true religion” that you believe in. It is quite another to attack or attempt to destroy someone else's faith. Although plenty of negativity still exists, things like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 help to protect the free expression of religion from a political or legal standpoint.[xv]
Native American Spirituality is Magical
As the popularity of modern paganism and New Age practices grows, Native American spirituality has experienced a type of trendiness across cultures that would normally not practice any of the ceremonies or truly understand the beliefs. Some people believe that all American Indians were peaceful, nature-loving, spiritual groups that did magic or had shamans or medicine men making supernatural things happen in rather fantastical ways. This may also be the result of media interpretations or a general interest in things beyond the ordinary.
While it may seem like a positive thing to think Native American ceremonies and spiritual practices are ultimately good and special, this romanticized belief has some very real negative consequences. Sacred locations sometimes get invaded or disturbed by outsiders who interfere with the native rituals, prayers, or offerings placed there.[xvi] This insidious invasion, even with its positive intention, is pushing more native people away from places they value.
Another problem with this magical impression of native religions involves greed, something that unfortunately infiltrates a lot of religious practices around the entire globe. People claiming to be spiritual gurus or shamanistic masters start to sell prayers, offerings, experiences, or products like smudge sticks, native-styled pipes, and fetishes as New Age self-help items instead of part of actual religion. There is a difference between enjoying Native American artwork and artifacts and hanging a dream catcher or carving on your wall and buying a do-it-yourself vision quest kit.[xvii]
How Non-Natives Can Engage With Native Religions
As with all religious observances and education, the most important thing to remember is to always approach learning and participating with respect. It is a wonderful thing for different cultures to truly learn about each other. Read websites like this one, accurate books, visit powwows open to the public, and talk to Native Americans to hear their stories and experiences.
Come to every situation as a seeker of knowledge and without the intention to take over or adopt all the beliefs as your own.
First, realize that Native American religion is a very broad and diverse collection of beliefs and practices. Understand that these things have been under attack for centuries, and maintain a true sense of respect in that regard. Beware of New Age gurus who want to make a buck or start some weird type of spiritual movement with borrowed beliefs.
Thousands of religions and spiritual paths exist in the world today. Cultures from different parts of the globe practice them and intermingle their faiths in new and interesting ways. The Native American religions practiced, lost, and regained over the past few millennia in this part of the world have experienced a lot of upheavals that continues to this day.
The beginning of a better way comes from education, understanding, and respect. Gathering information about the vast diversity of spiritual beliefs and ceremonies could be a task that takes a lifetime. Indeed, it may be futile because no one could gather that much information in one lifetime. Perhaps the most important thing to do is continuously respect traditions, ceremonies, and practices as the property of the native tribe that holds them.
Throughout history, Native American people have been constantly affected by outside forces and their own path through the centuries. The whole collection of unique beliefs include things like Wakan-Tanka, the sacred mystery, vision quests to gain enlightenment and direction, many ceremonies and dances to honor spirits and for other purposes, and ceremonies that incorporate many symbols of their faiths. Today, they strive to preserve or rediscover their religions and cultures to continue their specific Native American spirituality for future generations.
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